Will Office Open XML Slam The Door On Accessibility?

Microsoft's bid to turn its Office Open XML (OOXML) format into an ISO standard is a bad idea for any number of reasons. One of those reasons, however, strikes me as especially troubling: If OOXML wins ISO approval, it could make life much harder for millions of disabled people who rely upon accessibility-enhancing tools and technologies.
Microsoft's bid to turn its Office Open XML (OOXML) format into an ISO standard is a bad idea for any number of reasons. One of those reasons, however, strikes me as especially troubling: If OOXML wins ISO approval, it could make life much harder for millions of disabled people who rely upon accessibility-enhancing tools and technologies.Microsoft certainly has been aware that accessibility would be a significant issue in its bid to promote OOXML as an international standard. Last July, the company published what it described as a "preliminary draft report" that tested OOXML against two key World Wide Web Consortium accessibility standards. The report, which compared OOXML to about 70 key "checkpoints" outlined in the W3C Web Content and XML Content Accessibility Guidelines, was the first Microsoft document to provide specific technical details about accessibility compliance in the OOXML proposal.

A week later, Peter Korn, an accessibility expert working at Sun Microsystems, reviewed the Microsoft report in his blog. While Korn welcomed the release of the report, it obviously raised more questions for him than it answered. The report was, for example, attributed only to one author, Gray Knowlton -- a Group Product Manager for Microsoft Office:

"What about people with accessibility expertise at Microsoft? I presume at least one of them was involved, but with what background? What about folks from the disability community. Was anyone with technical background from a blindness organization invited to contribute? Anyone with physical impairment expertise? Anyone making assistive technologies? Anyone making file conversion software to take office documents into Braille or DAISY? It is difficult to trust a document that has no attribution. Given the high stakes involved, it is difficult to accept something without peer review from experts that don't stand to profit from the results of the review."

Korn also questioned the report's methodology; while it tested OOXML against a recent draft of the XML accessibility spec, it ignored a recent final draft of version 2.0 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in favor of the eight year-old version 1.0 WCAG standard. As for the XML guidelines, Korn noted, the report was so vague about how OOXML related to the first eight checkpoints that he could not tell whether the format actually supported them, even partially.

While Gray Knowlton replied to Peter Korn's post and addressed some of the questions Korn raised, many others remained unanswered. That isn't surprising, since Microsoft's "draft" report on the issue went nowhere during this period. The same can't be said for the OOXML draft specification, as the Ecma standards body, with Microsoft's full support, used its privileged relationship with ISO to put OOXML on a fast-track approval process.

ISO approval was clearly the prize for Microsoft all along, since this would put OOXML on an equal footing with the group's existing document format standard: Open Document Format (ODF). Yet this was a prize ISO members weren't prepared to award Microsoft quite so fast: In September, 2006, OOXML failed to get the votes it needed to win quick approval.

The delay allowed various technology experts to take a closer look at the Microsoft OOXML proposal -- all 6,000-plus pages of it. In January, two researchers at the University of Toronto's Adaptive Technology Resource Center revisited the questions surrounding OOXML support for accessibility standards. They set out to answer the questions Peter Korn and others had raised about the results of Microsoft's July, 2007 study, as well as underlying concerns about the study's research methodology.

The results of the University of Toronto study, entitled "Accessibility Issues with Office Open XML," were damning, to put it mildly. While researching their study, for example, the authors noted how Microsoft "fixed" checkpoints that OOXML had not passed in its July, 2006 study:

"In their revision, Microsoft claimed that many of the unsupported accessibility guidelines we discuss herein were, upon further analysis by them, actually supported by the OOXML standard after all. However, upon investigating these new claims, we find that they are misleading: in almost all of these cases, the checkpoint is not satisfied, despite Microsoft's amended claims."

The University of Toronto study's authors also noted that Microsoft never bothered to revise its July, 2007 study, flawed though it was, beyond its initial, "preliminary draft stage" -- which is where the company's first and only study of accessibility support in OOXML languishes to this day. They point out that MIcrosoft failed even to solicit input from independent accessibility expters, much less to include such input in its OOXML format specification. They point out that OOXML fails to take advantage of widely adapted, standards-based options for displaying various content types, including forms, graphics, links, equations, and multimedia, choosing instead to use "immature and functionally redundant" approaches -- some proprietary to Microsoft, all creating serious and often fatal obstacles for third-party accessibility technologies.

"Needless to say," conclude the authors, it remains our opinion that OOXML is an inaccessible document format and not suitable for international standardization nor widespread adoption."

Does OOXML represent a logistical nightmare for companies with disabled employees who rely upon standards-based accessibility technologies to do their jobs? That seems like a safe bet. Could OOXML also cause problems for government organizations that use these technologies to protect the rights of disabled citizens? That seems like an even safer bet.

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Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
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Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing